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April-18-11 Issue: 12.04  
"Khazn"/"Hassan" Stories
this is column
89

*The Yiddish word for cantor is "khazn"
As we approach Pesach, I recall with fondness three cantors I have known. First, there was cantor Glovitch at Derech Emunoh Synagogue in Rockaway Beach, New York. Then I knew cantor Nathan (Nate) Lam. He has a voice that spans two worlds. In addition to being the cantor at Midway Jewish Center and the cantor at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel-Air, he was the vocal instructor for Lionel Ritchie, David Cassidy, David Coverdale, Barry Bostwick, John Davidson, and Barbara Anderson (Eve on the tv series, "Ironside") He instructed Burt Reynolds and Richard Harris, who was appearing in "Camelot." And lastly, the late Cantor Morris ("Moish") Dubinsky, who was so beloved by the members of the Midway J. C.

There are so many "vunderlekh" stories about cantors.

#1. A Rabbi, a cantor, and a synagogue president were driving to a seminar when they were kidnapped. The hijackers asked the three of them to hand over all of their money and jewellery ("tsirung"). When they replied that they hadn't any, the hijackers told them that immediately after their last wishes were fulfilled, they would be killed.

"My last wish," began the Rabbi, is to give a fascinating, complicated, "lang" (long) sermon that I have always wanted to but never been allowed to give."

"We will grant your wish," the hijackers replied.

"My last wish," said the cantor, "is to sing a beautiful, Yemenite style song, one of my own compositions, lasting "tsvey" (2) hours. I have never been allowed to sing it."

"We will grant your wish," the hijackers replied.

"What is your last wish?," the hijackers asked the shul president.

"Please, please shoot me now."

#2. Hazzan Rachel Hersh Epstein told this story (Musaf Teaching: Yom Kippur, 5771)

It's the morning before Kol Nidre. The rabbi goes into the sanctuary to check the Torahs and get everything ready for the service. He approaches the ark. Above the doors, the words are carved: Know Before Whom You Stand. As he reaches for the door of the ark, snap!, his right contact lens pops out. Oy, blind in one eye, he gets down on his hands and knees to look for the lens in front of the ark. Meanwhile, down the hall, the cantor is getting his music together for the service. He thinks to himself that he should practice some things from the bimah, so he makes his way down the hall to the sanctuary. Upon entering, he sees the rabbi on the floor, prostrating before the ark. Assuming the rabbi is saying personal prayers before the ark, and not to be outdone by the rabbi, the cantor drops to his knees before the ark and begins to chant: I'm not worthy, I am like dust, I'm just nobody. Hearing the cantor next to him, the rabbi, not to be shamed out of his most pious position, joins the chant. A moment later, the president of the congregation walks in, looking for the clergy. Finding them on the floor, prostrating themselves before the ark, he hesitates for a moment wondering what to do and then decides he should join them. To prove his faith to his clergy, he chants even louder than the rabbi and the cantor. This goes on for a few minutes. At some point, the cantor nudges the rabbi with his elbow, gestures to the president and says, "Hey! Look who thinks he's nobody!"

Note: The Yiddish words for "nobody" is "keyner nit."

And, finally, I just had the pleasure of reading Jack Cooper's 2010 book, "Who Knew? Unusual Stories in Jewish History." On page 66, we read a piece titled, "...a woman with marital problems needs a cantor';

During the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries in the Middle East, cantors did much more than lead their congregations in song. As a minimum requirement, a cantor had to be literate and musical and had to be familiar with a number of variations of the tunes he was to perform. Cantors were also linguists whose abilities were often put to use.

Aside from the musical requirements of the job, cantors of those days were required to appear as beyond reproach in their religious and moral conduct. Once the cantors attained these personal credentials as pillars of the community. they were well positioned to begin performing all the community functions required of them.

Officiating at weddings, funerals, and other family affairs, cantors lent dignity and honor to the proceedings as well as providing additional income for themselves. Another source of income for the cantor was "the tour." From the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, cantors would visit nearby towns to demonstrate their skills, and grateful patrons would reward their efforts by monetary contributions.

Since cantors spent a great deal of time on the road, they were often entrusted with bearing public announcements to other towns and were also engaged to carry goods from place to place.

Cantors also functioned within the legal system of Jewish communities. The cantor might be retained to visit the homes of women experiencing problems in their married life. The depositions taken down by the cantor might very well be used in a subsequent legal proceeding. Indeed, cantors frequently were vested with power of attorney by virtue of their reputed honesty. Because they traveled to other places, such powers of attorney might eliminate the necessity of somebody else making additional trips outside their immediate vicinity.

The time-honored practice of ransoming captives was another area where cantors were pressed into service. Cantors also were charged with seeing to it that needy Jews were provided for by public funds.

Finally, cantors frequently acted as matchmakers. If the match eventuated in marriage, the cantor might logically be engaged to perform the nuptials."*

* S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: An Abridgement in One Volume, revised and edited by Jacob Lassner (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 278-81.
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Marjorie highly recommends Jack Cooper's book, which is available from Gefen Publishing House, Ltd., 6 Hatzvl Street, Jerusalem 94836, Israel...or Gefen Books, 600 Broadway, Lynbrook, NY 11563.

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